Milton Dienes had set up two easels displaying decades-old photographs in the recreation hall of his King of Prussia apartment building where he has lived for 42 years with his wife, Harriet.
“These should be somewhere,” marveled a woman who came into the room, ready to play a game of cards and chat with her friends.
The photographs, which show scenes like wreckage from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, as well as the mushroom cloud from the bomb itself, are in fact going somewhere: the Library of Congress and into the National Archives.
Dienes, 92, served in the 9th Photographic Technical Squadron, part of the 20th Air Force Strategic Air Command, during World War II. His squadron was tasked with photographing and processing photos of Nagasaki and Hiroshima during and after the bombs were dropped on the cities.
Fighter pilots would take photos from different angles and Dienes and his fellow men, stationed in Guam at the time, would process them. He estimated they processed 14,000 prints a day, after which the prints would go to officers. “They were the ones would look at the photographs and evaluate what damage was done, what damage was not done … The damage would determine do we go back and hit that spot again or do we leave it alone.”
Dienes, who has been a photographer since he received his first Argus C3 camera as a Bar Mitzvah present, was then sent to photograph the rubble of Nagasaki.
“No question the vivid impression that still sticks with you is the devastation and destruction of the city itself,” he said, “and yet today it is probably the most advanced, sophisticated city in Japan, and Hiroshima as well. They built it up from the ashes, literally.”
He took photographs of streets lined with debris and remnants of what were once buildings. The only structures still intact were smokestacks because of how and when they were built, he said.
He saw people covered in burns from the radiation of the bomb, nicknamed the “Fat Man,” which killed anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000.
“I could’ve taken photographs of people all day long. I wasn’t sent there to do that, but there were so many really dramatic photographs that could’ve been taken,” he said. “But a lot of the people were in pretty bad shape. They were really burned, you know, radiation burns, and it wasn’t pretty. And not that I didn’t have the stomach for it, but, number one, I wasn’t sent there for that reason, but it was difficult. It was just difficult to photograph. Some people it’s not, but to me it was tough so I didn’t do it.”
He and a few others walked around for two days, documenting what they saw. They were inevitably exposed to radiation.
“I don’t glow at night,” he joked.
He left in March of 1946, and the squadron was deactivated in November of that year. No one saw or even heard of the work Dienes and his squadron did until this year.
“For whatever reason, they never shipped back anything, nothing. All records, all photographs, all correspondence gone, disappeared. There was no existing information about our unit until a month ago,” he said.
It started in August with an unexpected phone call.
“I pick up the phone, it’s the middle of the afternoon, and they say, ‘This is [Lt.] Col. [Dianne] Hickey of the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, commander of the 14th Intelligence Squadron. Are you Milton Dienes?’” Dienes recalled.
“Were you on Guam in 1945, 1946?”
“Were you a member of the 9th Photo Tech Squadron?”
“She said, ‘We’ve been looking for you for months, and can we talk?’” Dienes said. “She says, ‘I have a lot of questions.’ We talked for over an hour. She’s the one who told me there is absolutely no record whatsoever of our organization.”
She invited him to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, for three days to honor him and another member of the 9th Photo Tech Squadron, Jerry Johnson of Mercer, Pa., whom Dienes hadn’t known.
So in September, off he went along with his son to talk about his experiences to a group of 200 current squadron members who’d never heard his story.
He and Johnson each talked at length with Hickey, and the discussions were recorded.
“It was an experience obviously I’ll never forget,” Dienes said, “and the funny thing is as the two of us were talking back and forth, the more he spoke, the more I started to remember and vice versa, because one thought triggers another.”
The audience was appreciative.
“All 200 got up and applauded for over a minute. And I’ll tell you, that really got to me,” Dienes said. “And when we left, each and every one of them shook our hands and had something to say. All 200. It took about 20 minutes,” he laughed.
They received T-shirts the squadron wears, which Dienes keeps safe along with other keepsakes: a T-shirt his own squadron wore; patches he wore in the war as well as received after; a special plank-holder Hickey gave him at the September ceremony; newspaper clippings about appearances he has made; and other trinkets, including a shot glass, all of which he keeps tucked in a briefcase.
The photographs Johnson and Dienes took have been copied for records and will be put in the Library of Congress — quite an honor for the Logan native who was photo editor of the newspaper at Central High.
Dienes has gone on to take award-winning photographs, including one he is particularly proud of at the Library of Versailles that features a long shot of the hall with a large globe. The key was that no one walked into the shot as he took it, he noted.
More recently, he won first prize in the pictorial category of a photography competition from the Upper Merion Camera Club. He took a photo of his grandson’s graduation with the caps flying the air.
He’s also been invited to share his experience at speaking engagements — now that the story is finally public knowledge.
“I like the opportunity to be able to tell the story because I think people should be kept aware of it,” he said, “just like I think they should be kept aware of the Holocaust.”
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